May I ask you a question?
The question is this: Do you think, in general, that people are doing the best they can?My answer? I don’t know. I really don’t. But Brené Brown tells me that our lives are better when we assume that people are doing their best. And when Brené talks, I listen.
This is another gem from ‘Rising Strong’, or, as I like to call it, the Gospel According to Brené Brown. Brené is best known for her TED Talk on ‘The Power of Vulnerability’, which, if you haven’t seen, you should watch. Right now. Off you go. Bye.
I’ve talked about Rising Strong here, here and here, so I won’t go in to much detail about the book itself. But basically Rising Strong prescribes a three step process for getting over failure, disappointment and hurt. It’s all about emotional curiosity, noticing you are feeling something, rumbling with it and defining your own ending.
Today’s lesson was sort of a side track from the main road, but a trip worth taking nonetheless. It was, as I said, about whether we view the world through a lens that assumes that people are doing the best they can. And the difference that makes to the way that we handle disappointment.
When people let us down – at work, at home or on the street – we have two choices. We can assume that they were doing the best they could with the tools they had. Or, we can assume that they could have, and ought to have, done better.
Brené says that the latter option is dangerous and unproductive. If someone lets us down, and we pin that failure to an assumption that they are lazy, incompetent or otherwise bad, we are focussing on what could or should be, rather than what is. This ‘slacker/ failure’ lens can bring a heady dose of self-righteousness, but it doesn’t fix the issue, or prevent it from happening again.
Alternatively, we can start by thinking that they were doing the best they could. Yes it’s a generous assumption, but it shifts our gears from judgment to remedy.
Brené’s point is that there is no integrity in judging and turning ‘it’s not fair’ into ‘I deserve’. We need to take responsibility for our own wellbeing. If we think we are not being treated fairly or not getting something we deserve, are we actually asking for it? Or are we looking for an excuse to assign blame and feel self-righteous?If you’re reading this you’re probably all about the self improvement. Like Brené and me, you probably have high expectations of yourself, and these gravitate towards other people too. Assuming that people are doing the best they can is not incompatible with high standards. It’s just that it’s up to us to set boundaries and to manage our expectations.
Changing nothing and expecting a different result is a fast lane to disappointment, and, ultimately, resentment.
For managers and leaders dealing with under-performing staff or contractors, this truth can bring about a stark realisation. The realisation that instead of prodding and pushing someone, they need to get on with the difficult task of helping them, reassigning them, or letting them go.
Brené calls this ‘moving the rock’. She says that we have to stop kicking the rock. It hurts us and them. If someone is not right for us, or a job, then no amount pushing is going to change that. They need to be reassigned, or let go.
Now, Brené makes it very clear that assuming people are doing the best they can doesn’t mean that we stop helping people set goals or that we stop expecting people to grow and change. It just means that we stop respecting people and evaluating people based on what we think they should accomplish, and start respecting them for who they are and holding them accountable for what they’re actually doing.
Oh and when it comes to ourselves, the same rules apply. Instead of viewing our falls through that slacker/ failure lens, we need to extend a similar assumption of generosity.
Because, you ought to know, that you are doing the best you can.
More on Rising Strong:
Thought Leader(s): Brené Brown
Book(s): Brown, B (2015) ‘Rising Strong’, Penguin Random House UK.